Building Team Modi: Lesson for MBAs
The PM is known to do his homework on candidates for months, sometimes years.
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He has been called autocratic, petty, vindictive, and a micro-managing control-freak with a special weakness for sycophancy. The image has been driven in by his critics regularly, insistently, for years.
Even many of those strongly optimistic about Narendra Modi as prime minister have come to accept this image as a fact; as a kind of unpleasant side to a decisive leader one ought to put up with for "achche din".
But puzzlingly, one of the most remarkable things about Modi’s first year in office has been the way he went about picking his team. He did it smoothly and quietly, with uncharacteristically little fanfare, and proving many of these postulates wrong.
The way he built the nucleus — Ajit Doval, Raghuram Rajan, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Nripendra Misra, PK Misra, Jawed Ashraf, possibly Syed Akbaruddin (his next assignment will be keenly watched) — is a study in leadership.
When he believes you are the right candidate, he moves swiftly and determinedly. He got Nripendra Misra out of his retirement as his principal secretary bulldozing norms through an ordinance, for which he has been widely criticised.
Modi does his homework on candidates for months, sometimes years. His interaction with national security advisor Ajit Doval dates back at least a decade. He brought PK Mishra to the prime minister's office (PMO) after working with him for years in Gujarat.
Modi first met foreign secretary Jaishankar in China in 2011. He was apparently struck by the diplomat’s clear thinking on what India’s foreign policy should be, level-headedness, and vision. He liked his specific and pin-pointed approach to issues.
But more interestingly, Modi was apparently impressed by the fact that Jaishankar was not afraid to speak his mind.
Bureaucrats and politicians who have worked with Modi say the prime minister likes people who speak their mind — "as long as they have a mind of their own," as one put it, and what they say is backed up with evidence.
He apparently does not handhold or micro-manage. Before handing over a job to someone, he discusses his vision and that’s that, says a minister. He is open to suggestions, encourages initiative, and doesn’t suffer fools.
It is entirely possible that some or much of this springs from his colleagues’ blind adulation of their leader. But there is another aspect to Modi’s team-building that belies his image of being paranoid and vengeful.
He has kept Reserve Bank of India (RBI) boss Raghuram Rajan despite him being a United Progressive Alliance (UPA) appointee and even after Rajan publicly disagreed with the government on occasions. The RBI governor is known to be finance minister Arun Jaitley’s choice, and the prime minster has let him to be a balancing force in his regime.
Even Modi’s speechwriter Jawed Ashraf had worked closely with former prime minister Manmohan Singh. Modi keeps the bright Stephanian and "the translator of his ideas" close to him in the PMO.
The prime minister has also shown a great degree of trust for UPA appointee Akbaruddin, who many believe may get an important assignment after his long stint as the ministry of external affairs (MEA) spokesperson.
In this one year, Narendra Modi has been praised for many things, criticised for many. But building Team Modi has perhaps been his most low-key but crucial achievement early on in the innings, and the most unnoticed revelation.